At the very beginning of their search, people interested in buying their first 3D printer come across a significant dilemma related to the price of devices – discrepancies between individual models reach several or in extreme cases even tens of thousands of dollara. Cheap, Chinese FFF 3D printers can be purchased for a few bucks, meanwhile the prices of good desktop class devices start around USD 2000. At the same time, many devices using the same manufacturing method are available on the market, costing well over USD 100.000. What causes these differences in prices, is it possible to print on a 3D printer for a one hundred bucks as well as on a device that costs twenty times more and whether a 3D printer for USD 200.000 prints 200 times better than a cheap Chinese device – we will try to answer those questions it in this article…

The subject of 3D printer prices is simple and complex at the same time. On the one hand, it all comes down to the quality and failure rate of the equipment, ease of use, repeatability and the ability to use specific filaments with it – on the other, each of these aspects is very individual and very dependent on the needs of the user. There are areas where a simple and primitive 3D printer for self assembly for USD 100 will work just as well as a 3D printer from a reputable manufacturer for USD 10.000 – but there are applications where correct print from a given material will only come out on the machine for a quarter of a million dollars.

The cheapest 3D printers are bought on Chinese trading platforms. Their low prices are due to the following reasons:

  • cheap construction components
  • cheap labor for assembly or completing self-assembly kits
  • relying on free open-source solutions (design, firmware, control software).

With a cheap 3D printer, you can achieve quite good results by using simple filaments such as PLA, ABS, PETG or HIPS. ABS generates the usual problems with shrinkage (resulting in model deformations and cracks on its surface), but if the details are not geometrically demanding and simple shields are used for them (e.g. a cardboard is put on a 3D printer or we use a popular chamber made of Lack tables from IKEA) we should handle this problem. To achieve this it is enough:

  • assemble the 3D printer correctly
  • correct / fix the most common errors and problems (e.g. replace the teflon tubes leading the filament to the head, change the extruder attachment or replace it altogether, improve the cooling method – or install them at all, fix / align the working table etc. etc.)
  • learn how to use 3D printer software (open-source type, e.g. CURA or Slic3r) in advanced settings and be able to adjust each 3D print parameter to the requirements of a specific model and material used
  • accept the fact that certain things simply cannot be printed from certain materials.

Cheap 3D printers deal with a very simple rule – the less we pay for it, the more time we will spend repairing / improving / modifying / configuring it yourself. A 3D printer for self-assembly is an excellent purchase for a person who holds the title of “amateur of new technologies”, because in the first few to several months with a 3D printer will spend more time on the device itself than printing from it. If someone plans to buy this type of device for a company, then, unfortunately, they must add the cost of the employee who will implement it to the price of the 3D printer. Unfortunately, it may turn out that the device for USD 200 ultimately cost the company USD 5000 (especially if the employee was dealing with 3D printing for the first time in his life).

In more expensive desktop 3D printers this problem is gone – or it is leveled to a minimum. First of all, 3D printers come to us assembled, ready to work virtually a moment out of the box. Secondly, they are easy to use and repeatable – even if they work with free open-source programs, they are already adapted to the specific device model. After starting them, we select the 3D printer model from the list, we also have profiles for the most popular filaments. Thirdly, all learning how to work with such a 3D printer boils down to properly placing models on a work table, adjusting the filament to the expected dimensional effects, or ensuring the right working environment.

Another advantage of more expensive 3D printers is better quality work with engineering materials – ranging from nylon (PA6 / PA12), through ABS with carbon fiber (PCABS) or fiberglass, and ending with high-temperature materials such as PEEK. Materials of this type can be printed on cheap Chinese 3D printers either at all (too low temperature ranges on the head and on the bed), or the results obtained will be far from expected. Some specialized plastics are highly abrasive and special print heads (e.g. with ruby ​​nozzles) are needed to print from them. To sum up – the more specialized the material, the higher the requirements placed on the 3D printer.

Finally, the answer to the question whether a cheap 3D printer can print better or as well as an industrial class device for several dozen – several hundred thousand dollars? Well, it is possible – the only question is what the final detail is and what material we use? If the reference point is a printout from the PLA a calibration cube, 3DBenchy boat or a toy turtle, it will most likely turn out that on a “well-made” Ender 3 or a perfectly calibrated Original Prusa i3 Mk3 a better result will be achieved than on a Stratasys F370. Unfortunately, when the type of detail changes to the casing of some device with dimensions of 18 x 15 x 12 cm, complex internal (requiring the use of soluble support material), which will be resistant to moisture and temperatures reaching the level of 120°C, it will turn out that cheap 3D printer design simply won’t do it, because of its technical limitations…

Because what ultimately determines the quality of the device is the type of application to be created from it. Simple things can be printed well on simple and cheap 3D printers, with simple and cheap filaments. Difficult, professional things are printed on expensive machines from very difficult to control plastics.

And this is the reason for the title discrepancies in the prices of FDM / FFF 3D printers …

Paweł Ślusarczyk
CEO of 3D Printing Center. Has over 15 years' experience in buisiness, gained in IT, advertising and polygraphy. Part of 3D printing industry since 2013.

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